Saturday, 31 January 2009
My only previous experience of cold turkey is in the post Christmas week, when for days every dish appears with the remnants of the roast - this was hardly sufficient preparation for the antarctic conditions I have encountered during the past month. Two weeks ago the nippy night time temperature in Erzurum, eastern Turkey was minus 38 degrees centigrade but thawed out considerably to an almost tropical day time temperature of minus 25 degrees - Brrrr! If you add the inhospitable hills, howling wolves and the wind which acts like a frozen cloth, wiping your face with each gust, then the reception from nature has been quite cool! Fortunately this has been more than balanced out by the Turkish temperament which is as warm as their wood burning stoves!
From the minute I biked over the border from Greece I was greeted with great big smiles, friendly honks of the horn, was offered copious cups of tea and frequent fags. The tea arrives in a tiny tulip shaped cup accompanied by half a field of sugar cane! If I drank all the sugary tea offered my teeth would be rotten by Tehran. Equally, I do not mınd the occasional fag (although I took exception to the Italian brand) but if I smoked each one my lungs would be lacerated by Lahore! Mind you, everything smokes in Turkey! Turkish trucks smoke as they growl and groan their way up the grave gradients. The trash at the side of the road smokes as people light formidable fires for warmth. The fully stoked wood burning stoves in restaurants smoke as you are walloped by a wall of heat and haze each time you enter them. Even the valleys appear to smoke as the mid morning sun evaporates the mist, forming floating fragments of fog. The only smoke free zone is the television, where actors, caught in the act, have the offending fag fuzzed out! Other butts are blurred out too - with any nudity being deemed unnecessary!
My first night in Turkey was spent a few miles over the border under some trees with a young German couple heading for Georgia. They had a wonderful spirit but not much else. Their budget was brutal - the ten euros per day for the two of them did not allow for any luxuries. They had a wonderful eclectic mix of equipment - most of it purchased on ebay but many things were already broken or did not work properly in the first place. I thought I was slumming it going six days without a shower but they had managed only two in about forty days. Despite this, they were fresh faced, full of fun and having the time of their lives. Before parting the next day they eventually let me treat them to a Turkish coffee. I am not exactly loaded down with lire but compared to them I felt minted!
A few days and one hundred and fifty miles took me to within touching distance of Istanbul. It was eleven pm but I still had twenty six miles to the centre of the city. Paraphrasing the petrol pump attendant, 'The traffic was tragic,' so I parked up under the petrol price column, unrolled my bag and went to sleep. What only seemed lıke minutes later my alarm informed me it was five - time to get a head start on the traffic. I had half an hour of happy cycling before the metal boxes resumed their bumper to bumper battle. At one point, marooned amidst all the motors, I stopped and ate a fume filled apple, relieved to have a few moments of respite! I spent the rest of the day cycling around Istanbul continually managing to miss the the tiny enclave of tourist hostels situated in Sultanahmet. Eventually, I was accosted by an Aussıe couple whose gregarious greeting made me wonder where I had met them before - however, they were sımply happy to see a fellow cyclist. Due to fly back to Oz they were busy cleaning and stripping their bikes so they would pass the stringent Australian custom controls. They then spent two hours squeezing their bikes into cardboard boxes which were too small. I registered in their rooftop penthouse suıte - a twenty seven bed deserted dormitory with a plastic cover to exclude the elements. Fortunately, we numbered only five as I think the solitary sink, shower and toilet would have been well troubled coping with the hıgh tide tourist trade!
I had a week to fill in before my friends, Denise and Al, arrived from Scotland. I rested, repaired my bike (new chain set and front wheel cone and bearings) and argued with the bıke shop owner who wanted to file off a little of my forks due to the ıncompetence of his workmanship. I also spent a couple of days with a great group of fellow guests at the Mavi hostel. Whilst out walking, anytime we asked for directions we were always told, 'straight ahead and right'. As we were usually too busy talking and laughing we did not know where we were, so were left with no option but to follow the directions - even though they were invariably 'Not Rıght!'
After almost seven months on the saddle I was looking forward to seeing my friends. Prior to leaving Scotland we made provisional plans to meet at the end of September but with one thing and another this was nudged back to November - but it was worth the wait! In between a boat ride up the Bosphorous, a trek around trendy Taksim, a saunter around the Spice Market and a gander at the Grand Bazaar we managed to over indulge in alcohol, under indulge in sleep but got the laughter level just about right. Throw in a couple of interesting conversations and the four days flew by and ıt was time for me to get back on the bike carrying a few more pounds - although not the kind that boosted my budget!
Before I moved on I visited the British Consulate to request an official letter that stated who I was and the purpose of my trip. I met a round the world motorcyclist from Serbia who said that the assurances from his Government had helped to speed up the usual snail paced process of visa procurement. I was very surprised to be introduced to the Consular General, Jessica Hand, in person. After a wee chat she said the support letter would be no problem. What was a problem was the price, ıt cost forty five pounds - the standard charge for an official letter. I could probably bribe border guards for less! Besides, when I proudly presented it to the Iranian Consulate in Erzurum, they looked at it with such contempt, it could just as easily have been toilet paper. Once the letter regains some confidence then I am sure it will play its part and prove to be a profitable investment.
During the following week the night time temperature dropped dramatically with the result that each morning my tent was damp and had to be dried out when I stopped for breakfast or a late lunch. Most places thought that I wanted to pitch my tent right in front of their restaurants. It took some time to explain that I was only airing it whilst I ate. Once this was established then a host of waiters wanted to help - pushing, pulling and flapping at my fragile tent until it was as taut as a trampoline, causing the droplets of dew to career off the canvas - I had already returned to my seat to eat my soup!
The roadside restaurants cuisine is constantly bovine based with little variation for the vegetarian. On some occasions I have had to eat meat or not eat at all! The lentil soup is invariably laced with a lamb stock and a simple bean casserole causes concern when minuscule bits of meat mix happily the haricots. I have been a vegetarian for fifteen years and I knew before embarking on my wee bike rıde that there was every chance that I would have to temporarily veer away from the veggies - I was prepared to be pragmatic. However, I was slightly surprised by how much my saliva, stomach and soul refused to muddle in with my logical mind and locked my jaw when the texture touched my mouth, preventing me from swallowing.
It took me almost one month and eight hundred and fifty miles to huff, puff and pedal from Istanbul to Erzurum (the coldest place in Turkey!). The time was both beautiful and brutal. I did not realise how harsh it had been until I reached Georgia and saw the Black Sea, flew along the flat roads and allowed my eyes to gorge at the green fields. Even although I slowed down and respected the rutted icy roads I still arrived on my arse many times. In order to keep warm my clothing had as many layers as a tunnocks wafer but this caused me to sweat more than a boxer training for a bout. Which in turn did not help to counter the cough I had caught in Istanbul. Despite all the challenges it was a wonderful experience with the fatigue, frost and infection only adding to the adventure!
Spending three weeks being messed about trying to arranged the Iranian visa was not so satisfying. I was tired and grumpy and had allowed myself to get too attached to the outcome, believing that it was the only way ahead. Erzurum, no pun intended is not a place to 'chill out' in. It has a ski resort, a large university and a military base. These people choose to settle in such a severe site for specific reasons - God knows why the rest live here! It is severely polluted, colder than an ex partners cuddle, whilst the streets, for weeks on end, are simply strips of ice which large lorries and dumper trucks trundle over whilst carrying away their cargo of snow. Occasionally you slide upon a fellow surly tourist waiting to hear about their Iranian visa application.
I managed to escape Erzurum when a member of staff in my regular soup shop called his English speaking friend Egemen who is the Tourist Project Manager for the area north of Erzurum. So for eleven delightful days I followed Egemen about like a wee puppy dog fortunately enough being invited to many of his business meetings and trips to visit the locals who live deep in the Choruh Valley. Egemen was advising and assisting them with grants so as to convert part of their houses to accommodate the increasing tourist trade.
The package is very appealing. Trekking, walking, rafting and cycling routes take you through areas of stunning unspoilt natural beauty. After a hard days exertion you then allow yourself to be spoilt rotten with homemade food, a fabulous view and a welcome so warm you do not even feel the early evening chill. Have a peep at the web page before the area becomes too popular. www.datur.com and/or www.choruh.com For more information or a personalised programme then you can contact Egeman directly via the datur web page.
Arriving back in Erzurum I entered the Iranian Consulate to hear the decision regarding my second application for a visa. Despite giving them everything they had asked for - including an invitation letter from someone living in Tehran they still refused my visa stating that there was something wrong with my contacts address. By now I was beyond caring and jumped on the bike and headed north to Georgia, happy to be heading to a visa free zone. In Tbilisi it took ten minutes to acquire my Azerbaijan visa but I am now barracked in Baku about to re endure more visa vexations for the the route ahead. Wish me luck!
Posted by Eric at 11:20 am